lunch time

‘Do You Want That Chopped?’

Can a restaurant critic learn to love the sad desk salad?

Photo: Jed Egan
Photo: Jed Egan
Photo: Jed Egan

If you’re not prepared for the spectacle, the lunchtime line at my local Sweetgreen — which occupies a corner space in Tribeca that’s way too small to handle the hordes of Salad People who descend from their cubicles in locust-like droves for their kale Caesar fix, every weekday, starting around noon — can be a little shocking. Movable nylon gates are set up side by side, in snaking rows leading to the counter, like in one of those endless baggage-check security lines. And, like at the airport, there’s not much joy among the Salad People, as they shuffle along in silence, checking their phones. “Don’t look at me, I’ve never been here,” grumbled the colleague who came with me when I asked if things were always this grim. “I’m not one of these miserable people.”

We’d arrived well past noon, which meant the two trash cans on the sidewalk were overflowing with compostable bowls, along with all sorts of other never-to-be-recycled garbage. When we reached the front of the line (which, to be fair, moved faster than at any airport), the overstressed employees seemed to be in a harried mood (“I didn’t hear you ask for a printed receipt!”), and the Chicken Pesto Parm, which we’d been told to try by some of the learned salad drones back at the office, was gone for the day.

It had been my editor’s idea to send Grub Street’s grumpy, salad-averse restaurant critic on a Great Salad Adventure around the city, of course. While I’d been addling myself on lamb chops and fancy seafood preparations at the usual round of upmarket bars and restaurants, more and more people were subsisting, he said, on increasingly different varieties of greenery. The lunchtime salad had been around for decades, of course, but thanks to all sorts of factors (busier and busier workdays, healthier tastes, the ruthless optimization of tech-minded restaurant chains), the genre had never been more popular, or more insidious. For a whole generation, salad has become the new pizza slice, a form of fuel, and also of identity and expression. My editor proposed I spend a month or so exploring this now-unavoidable phenomenon, lunching exclusively on grain bowls and chopped-romaine mixes at the brightly lit salad outlets that now seemed to occupy every block in town. I’d told him the most he’d get was a week of salad eating, or maybe a few days longer, before, inevitably, I reached the limits of cubicle-era healthfulness and went insane.

Before embarking on this mad adventure, I ran into a friend of mine, a salad eater of the old school, who still purchases his legumes at the market and dresses them, the old-fashioned way, with a home-cooked topping or two and simple vinaigrettes of his own design. He suggested I call his daughter, who was addicted to the leafy offerings of a certain prominent fast-casual salad chain (yes, Sweetgreen). Perhaps an intervention was in order, my friend mused. His daughter was burning through her credit card at the rate of two (or even three!) $13 salads per day, and was perilously close to attaining vaunted “black” status on her Sweetgreen rewards card, which requires spending $2,500 in a year, and affords access to a “VIP Sweetgreen concierge service,” among other ridiculous perks. My friend thought maybe I could talk some sense into her; at the very least I’d get a window into this strange new salad-eating world, which not so long ago consisted of few stragglers at your local deli or Whole Foods salad bar, but has grown in the last half-decade or so into full-blown cultural dining phenomenon, not to mention a multimillion dollar, endlessly replicated business model (last time we checked, Sweetgreen was valued at a billion dollars).

“Oh I’m addicted, 100 percent,” the young woman cheerfully cried when I called to check on her condition. She was aware that her salad supplier of choice “sucked you into their world” the way Starbucks did with caffeine addicts (“They’re the Sacklers of Salad!”), but like lots of people I’d encounter buzzing around the pickup shelves of my local Chopt, she said it could be worse. Her particular addiction, after all, was actually good for you, plus she didn’t have time to make her own dressing and ponderously add toppings the way her father did back home (“Dad’s salads look so sad!”). And what about the prices? “Everything is overpriced in New York,” she said. “That’s how I rationalize it!”

I heard plenty of rationalizing during the course of my great salad binge, the way one does when mingling with enthusiastic members of a new religion or cult. Sure, the Fast Salad Craze was a little narcissistic (“The Instagram selfie culture definitely affects you!”), and probably elitist (“the whole cashless thing is a bummer”). When pressed, even the most righteous Salad Loon will admit that there’s something demoralizing about keeping Just Salad’s plastic reusable bowl in your cubicle, which is designed for eating the same dreary salad again and again. They’ll also admit to feeling a little too much like a pampered liberal arts student, creeping through the college cafeteria line at some of these establishments, the way I did, when the mostly nonwhite servers at the very good bowl joint, Dig Inn (which is in the process of becoming simply “Dig”), started calling out, “Everyone gets one base, two sides and a protein!” as you skulk through the line.

But the numbers fueling the Great Salad Craze of the 21st century are impossible to deny. Chopt, which debuted as a small salad bar on 17th Street back in 2001, now has 60 locations in nine states, and the CEO, Nick Marsh, boasts of yearly growth that’s at least 20 percent. Sweetgreen operates in eight markets now, on both coasts, and will soon debut a new “Sweetgreen 3.0,” which will feature composed dishes, healthful snacks, and personalized menu suggestions generated via algorithm, like an Instagram feed you eat.

The companies’ proprietary apps track every click and decision and order their fans make, of course, and all sorts of cockeyed new analytics are being employed to optimize the salad experience for the ever-younger, tech-savvy consumer, including location (near a SoulCycle is good!), leaf preference (yes, kale has begun trending down), and even the best mix of bespoke dressings for that day’s weather (a specialty, apparently, at fresh&co).

It only took me a few days to recognize the relative benefits of these apps, which made it slightly more painless to order ahead and pick up my lunch, instead of dealing with the soul-destroying lines, especially during the riotous lunchtime hours. But not surprisingly, some of the online interfaces work better than others — Sweetgreen’s vividly colored, easy-to-use site is predictably alluring — and the pickup systems vary from place to place. I had no trouble collecting my slightly wan vegan falafel salad from the local fresh&co (450 calories, with plenty of chickpeas and a topping of sawdust falafel balls), but had to spend ten minutes waiting patiently for my surprisingly tasty Chopt Classic Cobb Salad to appear under the “P”s on the pickup shelf, before a kindly salad concierge directed me to the “A”s, where my salad had been sitting all along (“We’re a first-name company, Adam!”).

By the third or fourth consecutive day of my salad adventure, as the bowls of antically named greenery (“Chipotle Cowboy,” “Key West Jerk Chicken,” “Blueberry Summer”) began to blend inexorably together, I’d settled into a kind of rhythm. That’s the thing about a steady, ruminant’s diet, of course. There’s a meditative, almost blissful sameness to the proceedings, which doesn’t change very much no matter how many colorful toppings you add. I came to dread the taste of chopped chicken breast (sub in tofu for a touch of healthful protein heft), and even bacon bits (shredded tortilla chips and parmesan “crisps” provide enough crunch). The lightest amount of dressing is always best, too, and although the ready-made “destination” salads are all the rage, in life as in lettuce, it pays to experiment now and then.

So, what’s the best fast-casual salad in this salad-addicted town? As usual, that depends on your particular tastes and point of view. If it’s vivid ingredients you’re after, the blue ribbon goes to Sweetgreen where the prices aren’t actually all that high (especially compared to, say, a lunchtime Black Label Burger), although there’s usually nowhere to sit, and on crowded rush hour afternoons, the general vibe borders on insufferable. For a practical salad (or salad wrap) at reasonable prices, I like Chopt, (or in a non-line, no-fuss pinch, even the boxed salads at Pret A Manger). And if gourmet, college-cafeteria–style bowls are your thing (along with an exceptional cheat-day mac ‘n’ cheese), the aforementioned Dig, is the place for you. As for specific salads, I might actually return to the Just Salad outlet on Eighth Avenue one day for a taste of an edamame-rich creation called “Tokyo Supergreens,” although whatever you do, don’t plunk down $11.95 for the Spicy Thai salad at by Chloe, which was adorned with chunks of apricot-glazed sriracha tempeh, among other horrors, on the day I brought it back to my sad little salad cubicle.

Will this grumpy, salad-averse critic turn into a card-carrying salad addict? Is Sweetgreen’s vaunted black status, or even the lower-tier gold certification, in my future? Probably not, although I admit that I’ve been feeling fuller lately, and a little lighter, and during my lean-eating adventure, I walked down the steamy summer avenues with an unaccustomed zip in my step. I didn’t manage to last a month, or even two weeks on a steady diet of grain bowls and cube-friendly salads, but recently I’ve begun dropping into the local grocer to purchase a legume or two, a head of Bibb lettuce, some gently ripening summer tomatoes, and maybe an avocado. When I get back to my apartment, I’ll mix a vinaigrette with olive oil, balsamic, and a little mustard, toss the contents together in a bowl and then I’ll eat my bespoke salad peacefully, in the quiet comfort of my own home.

Can a Restaurant Critic Learn to Love a Sad Desk Salad?